Applying to Grad School 101

By Fernanda Morales Calva

Rice University

Applying to graduate school can be an overwhelming process. It is crucial to understand the requirements, expectations, and opportunities available so that you can make an informed decision about your career goals. Through this article, I will try to provide a guide to help potential doctoral applicants navigate the grad school application process. 

Once you’ve made the decision to apply to grad school, the first step is to identify programs and faculty that align with your research interests. It is crucial to give yourself time to research what programs and opportunities exist. As you begin preparing applications, you’ll be soon to realize that the amount of diversity of graduate programs and degrees offered can seem endless, especially when different departments and programs might do research that interests you, even within the same institution. 

If you are unsure which program or department is best for you, think about what you want or need from your degree. Some programs might be a better fit based on your career aspirations.  Additionally, investigate the doctoral program requirements. What classes will you have to take? Do they seem interesting and appropriate for your research focus? 

Is the program a rotational one where you’ll get to experience lab culture and the research before making a decision? Or is it a direct admittance, where you’ll be able to get a head start on the research starting day one? No program or department is a one-size-fits-all, and either can have its pros or cons, so consider what would be beneficial for you. 

To get started, I suggest reviewing the websites of labs and universities of interest or by looking up the authors of research papers in scientific journals you find fascinating. Once you have identified programs and faculty members of interest, reach out to them via email and express your interest in working with them. Note that this might not be standard practice in all institutions, but this opened a lot of opportunities for me. Include your CV and a short message indicating your interest in working with them. Ask if they are recruiting potential graduate students for the upcoming year and ask whether a quick call to discuss their research would be an option.

This will allow you to: 1) Know if the specific faculty member you are interested in will be recruiting graduate students the upcoming cycle, 2) Get to know about their current research projects (some Professors do not update their websites, so asking about their current and future plans is extremely valuable), 3) understand funding packages, fees and institutional requirements for the program, and 4) understand what is needed to get started on your application process.


The best time to reach out to potential faculty members is July to September the year before you plan on starting grad school. That is when most of them know if they will be taking more Ph.D. students and will be able to answer your questions. 

If a potential adviser does not respond or say they are unavailable to meet, don’t feel discouraged. Some might remember your email when looking through your application and go back to see what you said at the moment; some might be extremely busy but will still look through your materials.   

Another essential thing to consider is funding opportunities. Knowing that you can study and do research for free sounds like an extremely exciting idea. Nonetheless, considering funding opportunities when applying is essential. Some programs offer full funding, including tuition and stipends, while others may require students to secure their funding. Research and Teaching assistantships as well as fellowships are common opportunities for graduate students. Discuss with the faculty members you are interested in working with what these would entail. Additionally, consider cost of living in the city of the institution you are applying to. $30,000 will get you further in some cities that $44,000 will in others.  

Once you have identified programs of interest, the next step is to prepare your application materials, which typically include a personal statement, transcripts, test scores (if required), and letters of recommendation. Preparing your application materials with ample time will allow you to revise and perfect them, as well as tailor them for each of your institutions of interest.  

Important elements:

  1. Your personal statement should highlight your research experience, academic achievements, and future career goals. It is of the utmost importance to demonstrate how your own interests align with the program, faculty members and university you are applying to.  This is why tailoring each application to your school of interest is essential, but this does take up time.  My suggestion is to focus on research experience you have previously had. Admissions committees will look for applicants who have a strong research background. 
  2. If you are currently thinking of going to graduate school and have no research experience, you can look for opportunities working as a research assistant during your undergraduate or post-bac years. Additionally, presenting at undergraduate-oriented conferences or symposia is an excellent chance to polish your CV and get relevant skills. RURS AND GCURS are two excellent examples.  Participating in summer research programs (many of which have funding) is also an invaluable opportunity to gain experience and network with grad students and faculty members. You can look up some REU sites here!
  3. As for letters of recommendation, reach out to your recommenders with enough time (over 4 weeks). Choose your LOR authors carefully. The ideal recommender is a professor or individual who has been involved in your previous education and research activities. Personal acquaintances or authors who do not know you well are not good choices. Remember to give your recommenders context on the programs you are applying to and remind them of deadlines as these approach. Your application will not be complete if your recommenders do not submit their LORs, so check in with them to ensure that they do. 
  4. Finally, ask for application fee waivers! Grad school applications are expensive. You will be paying for standardized tests, official transcripts, translators, and application fees. Many schools offer application fee waivers to candidates who fulfill specific requirements. Others offer fee waiver weeks. Be sure to ask whether this is an option when attending information sessions or when emailing department coordinators. 

In summary, there is no one way to approach doctoral programs and their applications, as not all of these are one-size fits all. Applying to graduate school requires careful planning, preparation, research, and time. Identifying programs and labs that align with your research interests, gaining research experience and preparing strong application materials will increase your chances of getting accepted into a doctoral program. Good luck!